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B.C. village offers a free house to recruit doctor

The threat of a closed emergency room and fierce competition for doctors has led the village of Nakusp, B.C., to buy a house so a physician facing 10 job offers can live there with his family.

The idea came from the Arrow Lakes Hospital Auxiliary and the local hospital foundation after a resident left them an undisclosed amount of money in a will.

"We thought if we were to offer housing it might help attract a doctor to our community and it did help," said Ulli Mueller, foundation director and member of the housing committee that formed a corporation to buy the four-bedroom house for $280,000.

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The community partially furnished a bedroom, dining room and living room so the young couple doesn't have to move everything in until they have decided to stay.

The doctor is just finishing his residency in Golden B.C., and is set to move into the home this weekend with his child, wife and parents.

The international medical graduate had 10 communities vying for his attention, said Norm Lea, the lone full-time physician who is the chief of medical staff at the Arrow Lakes Hospital and operates his own family practice.

Dr. Lea said the new doctor is "awfully impressed with Nakusp" and committed to working there for two years.

"We've been trying really hard over the past few years to get some more permanent physicians in here and it's been really tough," said Nakusp Mayor Karen Hamling, who is also a director on the West Kootenay-Boundary Regional Hospital District board.

"We've come close to shutting our emergency room because of a lack of staff," she said. "Dr. Lea has cancelled plans in his own life to stay and keep it open."

In the past five years, the number of doctors in the community, which serves about 5,000 people in the West Kootenays region, has dropped from three full-time and one part-time physician to one full-time and another who works three-quarter time.

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Rather than wait for a more serious physician shortage and potential emergency room closure such as in Princeton, B.C., last September, the remote community on the shores of Upper Arrow Lake has opted to attract medical staff with subsidized housing.

"We are so isolated," said Mike George, chairman of the Arrow Lakes Hospital Foundation. "With impassable roads and being so far from anywhere we have to stay open. It's a matter of life and death."

Rural communities struggling to recruit doctors have offered free vehicles and free use of health clinics to help younger doctors who've accumulated years of student loan debts, he said.

Karen Marshall, a member of the Arrow Lakes Hospital Auxiliary and the housing committee, said she hopes the new doctor will make the community his home for the long term.

"Then he could look for his own house and we could use the house to recruit another doctor," she said.

The doctor will need to pay utility costs in the first year and rent in the second year.

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